HBO’s Barry is having its best season yet. The lengthy gap between its second and third season (thanks again Covid) allowed creative team Bill Hader and Alec Beg not only to go back and tweak elements of the scripts of season 3 they weren’t entirely happy with but also to write a fourth season.
The gap between seasons was so long that if you google ‘Barry’ one of the options that come up is, “Was Barry Cancelled?” Thankfully no. It’s back and proving with every episode that is well worth that wait.
There is so much packed into its tight half-hour episodes that it can be a tense watch. Barry (Bill Hader), the soldier, turned hitman turned actor is back to working as a hitman. He’s at his most listless. Taking work as a ‘hitman for hire’ and feeling increasingly disengaged with the world around him. His acting mentor Gene Cousineau (the ever-fantastic Henry Winkler) knows Barry was behind the death of his girlfriend Janice and Barry’s girlfriend Sally (the truly incredible Sarah Goldberg) should be the happiest she’s ever been after her one-woman show is turned into a show on streaming service BanShe and has a score of 98% on Rotten Tomatoes. There’s a feeling though that no one this season of Barry is very happy.
Let’s start with Sally. Sally is Barry’s love interest, of course, but she’s a lot more than that. She’s been more than that from the beginning. It would be all too easy to dismiss her passion for acting as a shallow search for meaning but Sally’s motivations for pursuing her dream to become an actor and perhaps a star have always been driven by the difficulties in her life before Barry arrived.
When Sally’s deeply personal show, Joplin is commissioned, heavily praised and immediately dropped by its streaming platform, Sally is devasted. Let down again, crushed, shaken and angry. Particularly when she is informed it has been cancelled because the algorithm turned against it. *I appreciated this jab at streaming services that never fully explain their metrics for judging whether something is a hit or not.* Even when things were going well for her with the show, she didn’t seem happy. Perhaps uneasy at using an earlier abusive relationship as the backdrop for her success. She’s also still reeling from Barry’s unprovoked and out of character (at least to her) outburst in her office. Under the stress of having Gene locked in the boot of his car, Barry demanded Sally find a place for their former teacher on the show. His nostrils flaring and eyes wide, he screamed at her, pinning her up against a wall while her young co-star watched on horrified. Sally, who is no stranger to an abusive relationship, didn’t even seem to register that Barry was being abusive. It took her co-star Katie (the brilliantly understated Elise Fisher) to point this out to her.
Everyone here is unfulfilled. Barry is lost without the safety net of the acting class and Sally, even when things are going well for her, can’t shake her inner sadness enough to enjoy her success.
When she tells Barry about her past (back in Season 1), it could be easy to view her as a narcissist overblowing the importance of her own pain, but that painful past is very real for Sally. It forms who she is. She just has trouble properly acknowledging her own worth.
The breakup hits Barry hard too, even though I’ve never been clear on whether the pair loved each other or were more interested in the idea of loving each other. When he stumbles across Sally distraught at the cancellation of her show, he offers to help by scaring the executive at BanShe who pulled the plug. He could get into her apartment, take pictures of her asleep, replace her dog with a different dog and move her furniture around in an attempt to make her feel she’s going mad. It’s in the calm way Barry tells Sally his plan to eventually make this woman feel so uneasy she’ll take her own life that Sally’s eyes are finally opened. Suddenly, the man staring back at her is a monster and she can’t believe she ever shared her life with him. It’s also a darkly comedic moment as Barry lists the various ways he can mess with the woman’s mind, whilst being completely unaware of how truly unhinged he sounds.
There was a sense in the early days of the show that Barry wasn’t a bad person. He was a skilled marksman in the army and had seen a lot of death, including that of his closest friends, and that had made him an adept hitman. There was never the sense that he was a cold-blooded killer who enjoyed his work. Now, without the acting class and strong role models in his life, he has become more detached from both the world he loved and his work. Hader is brilliant as Barry. Dangerous, serious and properly funny, he straddles a difficult line. It would be so easy to hate Barry. He is proving himself to be a particularly bad person this season with terrible judgement and true lack of a soul, but Hader delivers a performance that makes sure you never fully turn against him.
It’s telling that the happiest people on the show are the heads of rival drug gangs who have become unlikely lovers. The true MVP of the show No-ho Hank (a scene-stealing, Anthony Carrigan) seems truly happy in his properly romantic relationship with the Head of the Bolivian crime family Cristobal Sifuentes (Michael Irby). Where Barry and Sally are falling apart and were perhaps never even meant to be a couple, the villains are really relishing their time together, even if they know it’s a dangerous game they are playing.
It’s easy to forget, as you’re sucked into Barry’s dark side, that the show is a comedy. Perhaps that’s why the moments of true and absurdist comedy hit incredibly hard. The scene where Barry is forced to call a helpline after a bomb he has placed under the Bolivian’s house has failed to go off is ridiculously brilliant. “Have you turned your wifi on and off?” The perky telephone operator asks. After doing that, the bomb explodes, destroying the house and Barry’s windscreen in the process. I admire so much about the show, the way it tackles serious subjects with properly deep characters with many strands all within the confines of its half-hour, but when it goes for BIG and ludicrous jokes like this, it feels like the most exciting and inventive show there is.
Although it hasn’t been confirmed that the already written fourth season will be it’s last, it does feel like the net is closing in on Barry. A former soldier who served with him is now part of the FBI’s attempt to bring him down. His former boss Fuches (Stephen Root) has long since turned his back on him and spent the last few episodes reaching out to people who have lost people to Barry’s hands or bullets.
The police in Barry have been largely incompetent throughout the course of the show’s run, with the exception of Janice and maybe Loach (who also put the pieces together about Barry), but that incompetence has always been tied up with their willingness to blame everything on the Chechens. Barry’s former soldier, Albert Nguyen (James Hiroyuki Liao) looks set to change that.
The addition of a mother and son who learn that Barry is responsible for their father/husband’s death and seek him out to take revenge themselves adds yet another layer onto a show that is using every second of its run time to tell a complex, funny and dark tale which is unlike anything else I can think of.
Barry Continues Mondays on Sky Atlantic.